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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Pinter Festival at A.C.T.: Don't Expect a Map When You Travel Through "No Man's Land" — a review

Human nature includes the urge to make sense of things, an urge I suspected was felt by others who loitered in the lobby of A.C.T.A Contemporary Theatre after No Man's Land last Saturday night. We all stood in silence, heads tilted back to read a wall panel description of the play we had just seen, hoping to find in those words on the wall, if not a map to clear understanding, at least some signposts. None existed. But that did not invalidate the journey.
NO MAN'S LAND - Frank Corrado
              Photo: Chris Bennion

This first professional production in Seattle of No Man's Land is part of the Pinter Festival at A.C.T., honoring the English playwright Harold Pinter. I had already seen, and enjoyed, The Dumb Waiter and Celebration. I had no idea what to expect of No Man's Land. The theater's press release seemed vague and described it as "a profound (and boozy) meditation on life and death and what may or may not have taken place between the cradle and the grave."

It opens during the 1970s on a scene of two aging men, Hirst and Spooner—both of whom seem to be literary sorts—in the London home of the one named Hirst (Frank Corrado). He is apparently a wealthy man of some celebrity, although how he gained it we do not know. He is also a drunk. The room reflects Hirst's social status, as well as his own dullness and lack of personality.

It's late at night, and Hirst has invited the overly talkative, overly friendly Spooner (Randy Moore) home for more drinks after leaving a pub where they've just met. Or did they?
NO MAN'S LAND - Randy Moore, Peter Crook, Frank Corrado, Benjamin Harris
Photo: Chris Bennion

Hirst pours a whisky for his guest, and as he does so, he utters the play's first line: "As it is?"

Spooner cheerfully replies, "As it is, yes, please, absolutely as it is." Little did I know that I would need to accept the play "as it is" without satisfying my urge to uncover a clear message.

Just who is Spooner? Although he delivers impressively long and often humorous speeches, compared to Hirst's elegance and refinement (even as a drunk) Spooner comes across as slightly slimy, a mooch, a con man, a far less tastefully dressed hustler with dishonorable motives. And yet we feel for him because of the pathetic nature of his life. His cleverness stimulates Hirst into revealing more about himself—and the dream he keeps repeating—by nudging him with real or fabricated memories, sarcasm, and suggestion.

The two keep drinking and feeding off of each others' stories, exaggerations, imaginations, or just plain lies. Soon it seems Spooner is an old friend Hirst knew at Oxford, whose wife was one of Hirst's sexual conquests. Is any of it true? Or, are they just two lonely, pathetic men facing the end of their lives without any meaningful relationships, except with the bottle and their glorified pasts?

NO MAN'S LAND - Peter Crook
Photo: Chris Bennion

The only other characters are the insubordinate butler named Briggs (Peter Crooks), who reminded me more of thug on his best behavior, and a young man named Foster (Benjamin Harris). Both add an air of edginess, uncertainty, and possible danger. I swear that I heard Foster refer to Hirst as his father, but later he seems almost like Hirst's employee, a caregiver or handler for the old drunk. Hirst passes out repeatedly and must be fixed up to reappear before his guest Spooner the next morning, who has been locked in the room overnight by the others. 

The character of Foster adds to the confusion in a play that seems like a hundred mini-plays, moving from one speech to another without a lot of conversation. It feels like a tread mill, which could be the point; longings, circumstances, and regrets plod away in people's live and find no relief. Is anyone really listening? Do any of us truly know the person to whom we speak?

So how did No Man's Land, with its lack of much plot or any conclusions, make a crowd of people care enough to hang around afterward looking for insights? It appeals, in a dark way lightened by humor, to the secrets, yearnings, egos, vulnerabilities, and pasts we all carry inside ourselves, often as a burden.

For those of us who simply love words, it offers a symphony of eighth notes that dance on the air and keep us spellbound waiting for the final chord. It offers humor and sharp wit. The acting, and Penny Chern's directing, are superb. It makes us laugh. And it makes us squirm. Even the stage set makes the disconcerting circumstances visceral. There is only one comfortable looking chair and we wish for the actors, and the story, to settle, to allow us some relief from edginess, uncertainty, and subtle despair.

NO MAN'S LAND - Benjamin Harris
Photo: Chris Bennion

No Man's Land gets into your bloodstream and stays there. I'm no drinker, but it gave me a kind of hangover that haunted. And probably because it would not release me, after this strange play came the strange coincidence of which I also tried to make sense.

Stunned, I looked at the clock on the car's dashboard on Sunday morning and noticed that it read "10:30" once again. Twelve hours earlier, I had noticed the exact same time while in the same car, headed in the same direction (south) on the same freeway (I-5) discussing the same play (No Man's Land) with the same person (my husband). The first situation happened on the way home to Tacoma after seeing No Man's Land Saturday night. The second, on Sunday morning, occurred as we headed to the Long Beach peninsula for the Jazz & Oysters Festival.

"Is there a hidden meaning in this?" I asked myself, meaning the coincidence. But it was the same question I'd asked about the play and I had no answer. Meanwhile, we came to the place where Hwy. 101 branches off the interstate to lead to more and more branching roads, just as the complex sentences in the script of No Man's Land branched again and again, promising another elusive destination.

along Willipa Bay       photo by Candace Brown

I wanted to see the ocean, the big picture, but I had to travel through hills hidden by forest that eased into the coastal lowlands before I eventually reached the Pacific Ocean. And ultimately it reminded me of the insignificance of our individual lives when compared to its size and power.

At first impatient to arrive at the trip's conclusion, I learned something along the way; it is often best to relax, listen, stay present and aware, and appreciate, rather than analyze, the scenery.

photo by Candace Brown
No Man's Land will be presented again on Thursday, Aug. 23, at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 25, at 4 p.m., and Sunday, Aug. 26, at 2 p.m. (Find complete schedule and ticket information for this and other features of the festival through this link.)

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

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